The Story of Betsy Ramsay’s Grave
Icelanders (and Scandinavians in general) have a long tradition of supernatural ghost stories. Some of the stories from Iceland are about ghouls and apparitions, including the sinister dragger og afturgöngur (ghosts and the living dead respectively) and fylghur (followers) who take the form of animals or wraiths. Another tradition brought from the old country was prophetic dreams – and sometimes the dream would involve communicating with the dead.
The most famous local story about a dream is the one about Trausti Vigfússon and John Ramsey. John Ramsay was a tall and handsome aboriginal man who lived at Sandy Bar near the Icelandic settlement with his wife and 5 children. After a rocky start, the native inhabitants and the new arrivals established a good relationship and Ramsay became friendly with the new community, helping them with survival skills like building warm log shelters and teaching them local fishing and hunting techniques.
Unfortunately, in 1876, a smallpox epidemic decimated the two communities, hitting the aboriginal settlement at Sandy Bar the worst. Around 60 people lived there, but after the epidemic, only between 9 and 17 were left. The dead included John Ramsay’s wife, Betsy, and four of his five children. With so many dead, the remaining members of the Sandy Bar Band did not want to stay in a disease-ridden place so they moved to Fisher Branch to join the members of that band.
Trausti Vigfússon and his dream
Some years later in 1908, after John Ramsay had died, a man named Trausti Vigfússon had moved from the settlement at Iceland River to his homestead at Vatnsdalur in Geysir. One night, he had this dream: a tall, noble-looking aboriginal man emerged from the bush, took his hand and introduced himself as John Ramsay. He explained to Trausti how his wife, children and the community at Sandy Bar had been devastated by the smallpox epidemic many years before, and how he had walked all the way down to Winnipeg to buy a marble headstone for his wife, Betsy, and how he had hauled it all the way back on a hand sled in the winter. To safeguard the grave, he then constructed a wooden fence around the little plot. But the fence had long fallen into decay so he asked Trausti to promise him that he would go to the grave and build a new fence.
Now Trausti was a skilled carpenter, but he had a lot of work to do on his own land, having just established his homestead at Vatnsdalur. Plus he had no lumber to work with at the time, so he didn’t feel able to accomplish the task. So he told Ramsay he should approach some of the older settlers that he may have been acquainted with and perhaps they would help him. But Ramsay absolutely insisted that Trausti was the only one for the job, and finally, Trausti was forced to agree and promised to do the work.
After that, Ramsay spent some time telling Trausti about his dog team and how he had trapped beaver and hunted in the area around Trausti’s homestead. Finally, before taking his leave, he predicted that New Iceland would prosper because of the rich soil, and then he left the way he had come.
Next morning, Trausti told the dream to his family and the neighbours. They agreed that the request was a noble one and that he should heed the dream and honour John Ramsay’s request. Since Traust believed in dreams, he resolved to keep his word and rebuild the fence.
An Unplanned Delay
He began by cutting several ornate staves for the fence and the task took a great deal of time, since he had to do all the work by hand. As well, he only had a few pieces of lumber and unfortunately, there was no lumber mill in the area then, So he put the staves aside in a small shed and left the work unfinished. Trausti’s brother prevailed on him to spend his time fixing up his house, which needed a lot of work, plus there was the farm to look after. And so, the work was left for a number of years.
But Trausti felt guilty every time he thought of the staves and John Ramsay and the little grave, not to mention that he hadn’t kept his word. He felt very uncomfortable about not keeping his word, even if it was only given in a dream. It seemed so dishonourable. And his mother pointed out that not keeping his word might be responsible for the loss of some livestock. But it wasn’t until he was working on the church in Riverton and spoke about the matter to Gestur Guðmundsson of Sandy Bar that he realized he should get on with the job, since a saw mill had at last been built in the area.
So in 1917, Trausti finally finished cutting the last pickets and turned the decorative corner posts for the little fence. With the help of his daughter and his niece, they loaded everything on the wagon and set off for Sandy Bar. On the way, they stopped at Hnausa on the lake to pick up fish for their neighbour, Jón á Odda.
A Gift from John Ramsay
Unfortunately, the fishermen at Hnausa told him the fishing had been poor and there was no catch to be had. So they continued on to Sandy Bar, where he met Gestur and they put up the fence. Before they left Sandy Bar, Gestur insisted on checking his nets – and would you believe – they were full of fish! So Gestur told Trausti that the fish were from Ramsay. And Trausti left Sandy Bar satisfied that he had at last fulfilled his promise to John Ramsay.
Here are some pictures of Betsy Ramsay’s grave, with the white picket fence. It sits near the shore of Lake Winnipeg at Sandy Bar, now all on its own in a farmers field. The community of Sandy Bar is long gone, abandoned, ploughed under and used for growing crops. But Betsy Ramsay’s grave still sits there all alone near the lake.
After many years of neglect, the fence was once again in need of repair. In 1998, local residents Elizabeth and Joan Hibbert rebuilt the fence and added a plaque commemorating John Ramsay, who is also buried in the grave.
The last picture in the series shows the beach at Sandy Bar. Nothing remains of the Sandy Bar townsite, unfortunately. It has all been ploughed under working farm fields and can’t be accessed except when there are no crops on the field. But the beach is a beautiful and pleasant spot to spend an afternoon.